An adviser to the Assembly of the Poor (AoP) since the early '90s, ''Mod'' Wanida Tantiwittayapitak is a dedicated social activist well-known both in Thailand and in the global social justice movement. Many Thais regard her as an incessant troublemaker who devotes her energies to inciting rural communities to protest against the authorities with never-ending demands for their rights.
She has powerful enemies, in particular the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (Egat), which has paid millions of baht of electricity consumers' money to wage a protracted propaganda and dirty-tricks war against her and the AoP.
Born in Bangkok in 1955, Mod was in her final year of secondary school when she joined the student-led mass demonstrations which ousted the military dictatorship of Generals Thanom and Prapas on Oct 14, 1973, and which ushered in a new era of progress towards democracy.
She remained an activist while enrolled as an undergraduate in political science at Thammasart University up to the bloody massacre and coup d'etat of Oct 6, 1976. Like many of her contemporaries, she was more involved in the fight for social justice than in her studies.
After the October 1976 coup, she went into the jungle areas of southern Thailand to join the armed struggle led by the Communist Party of Thailand (CPT), along with many other student leaders.
Following the Thai government's amnesty policy of 1980 and widespread disillusionment among student activists with the CPT, Mod returned to Bangkok in 1981 and continued her studies until graduation in 1984.
In 1989, after a period selling insurance and working as a tour guide, Mod joined the Thai environmental movement in campaigning against a number of hydro-electric projects such as the Pak Moon Dam completed in 1995, and the proposed Kang Sua Ten Dam which remains on the drawing board to this day.
Mod is best known for her role (together with other activists) in bringing together rural communities all over the country, whose livelihoods have been affected by hydro-electric dams and other state-sponsored projects, to form the Assembly of the Poor, and for the AoP's protracted struggles for justice for its member communities.
The struggles waged by the AoP have involved long periods of demonstrations camped in front of Government House, establishment of a permanent protest village community at the Pak Moon Dam site, and negotiations with successive governments resulting in agreements to establish local joint committees to consider complaints, claims and compensation. The relationship between the AoP and most governments has been fairly adversary, with the AoP accused by governments of making never-ending and unrealistic demands, while the AoP has regarded such governments as being insincere and using stalling tactics in dealing with the plights of affected communities.
Mod, who I know personally, has always lived a simple life dedicated to the cause of powerless communities. She has lived and worked among such communities for most of her life, staying with them day and night during their protest campaigns. Nevertheless, she has been portrayed through media disinformation campaigns as living a double-life of apparent modesty but secret luxury, hired to cause trouble by foreign organisations, and in turn hiring villagers to take part in protests against the authorities. While these false accusations might seem laughable, they have been made by opponents of the AoP so often that they have convinced many members of the public who do not know her personally. Between 1975 and 1976, I was privileged to know Mod for the first time when she was supporting the struggle of the women workers of the Hara Jeans factory by living with them and educating them on social and political issues. After unsuccessful negotiations with their employer, the workers refused to vacate the factory and for several months successfully ran the factory themselves, buying raw materials from the market and selling the finished products to students and sympathisers while earning enough income to sustain their occupation of the factory.
As I write this, Mod is seriously ill in hospital. I hope that, whether or not you support her political causes, you will join with me in wishing her all the best in this personal struggle that she is experiencing, and agree that she is a woman worthy of the greatest respect.
Jon Ungphakorn is a former elected senator for Bangkok and at present the Chairman of the Thai NGO Coordinating Committee on Development.
First Published in Bangkok Post